7 cities where you can get your UNESCO history fix
Some of my most memorable travels share a common factor: they all include visiting historic sites. Agrigento in Sicily, and the towering Chichen Itza in Yucatan, are just a handful of the remarkable experiences I’ve had.
Now, I’ve set my sights on a bigger goal: visiting some of the best UNESCO world heritage site cities. Though I’ve a few already under my belt, I’m adding these 7 places onto the bucket list.
At the time of publishing, there are 1121 properties on the UNESCO world heritage list. These include cultural as well as natural sites.
These places remind us not only about our planet’s rich history, but also about how far we’ve come. It’s a chance to learn about past civilizations, rituals, traditions, and also something about ourselves.
Many UNESCO world heritage site cities are based in Europe, but there are also plenty others further afield.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — what is UNESCO?
UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It’s a specialized agency of the United Nations that, among projects, makes international cooperation agreements to secure world heritage sites.
This means that sites carrying UNESCO status in their respective countries are protected from any major changes.
What qualifies a city or monument as a UNESCO world heritage site?
The organization has certain criteria for a site or property to be included on the list. They must be of outstanding universal value and should also meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.
These criteria includes properties that:
- represents a masterpiece of human creative genius
- bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.
- contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.
1. Vatican City
It may be the world’s smallest country, but Vatican City is also home to the most UNESCO heritage sites. The city-state surrounded by Rome, is home to the Pope, along with mind-blowing iconic art and architecture.
St Peter’s Basilica is the largest religious building in the world. The Renaissance church is a result of the combined talents of Italian masters, Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno.
Best UNESCO world heritage site cities – the mesmerizing St Peter’s Basilica
The tomb of St Peter the Apostle — one of Jesus’ main apostles — is said to lie beneath the grand building. Many popes have been buried here since the early Christian period. Building of the present basilica began on 18 April 1506 and was completed on 18 November 1626.
A double colonnade envelops the basilica, with a circular piazza in front bordered by palaces and gardens.
Other top attractions to see here include the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums.
The Sistine Chapel is the official residence of the pope. It also serves as a place of religious papal activity and is where a new pope is selected.
The chapel’s also where you’ll find some of the most popular sculptures and paintings in the world. Feast your eyes on fabulous frescoes by Perugino and Botticelli, the chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment by Michelangelo.
Boutique hotels in Rome
Unless you’ve received a personal invitation from the Pope himself, you’ll need somewhere to stay close to Vatican City.
Hotel Martis Palace — best UNESCO world heritage sites
In the Navona district of Rome is the excellent Hotel Martis Palace. Choose from a range of boutique and individually-styled rooms and suites.
On-site, there’s also a library, bar and restaurant. Head to the roof terrace to catch some of the best views of the city.
Just 50 yards from Piazza Navona, the hotel’s also close to Campo de Fiori and the Pantheon.
The Fifteen Keys Hotel
With 15 individually designed bedrooms, The Fifteen Keys Hotel is a superb boutique hotel in Rome. Located in the cosmopolitan Monti district of Rome, there’s also a garden and terrace on site for guests to use.
The Fifteen Keys Hotel is about 10 minutes from the Coliseum on foot, and a 4-minute walk from Cavour Metro Station.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City — one of the best UNESCO world heritage site cities
“It’s a chance to learn about past civilizations, rituals, traditions, and also something about ourselves.”
7 UNESCO world heritage site cities to add to the bucket list
2. Salzburg historic center
When most people think of Salzburg, they think of the iconic 1965 film, The Sound of Music.
However, what many people may not realize is that Salzburg became a UNESCO member in 1997. Austria currently holds 10 world heritage site titles, the historic center of Salzburg being one of them.
The birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg is fondly considered as the ‘Rome of the north’. Italian architects, Vincenzo Scamozzi and Santino Solari designed many of the architectural buildings in baroque style during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The protected area of the old town stretches across 236 hectares and contains around 1,000 unique objects.
Highlights of historic Salzburg — best UNESCO world heritage sites
Old Town of Salzburg
Heritage must-see highlights in the city include DomQuartier and Salzburg Old Town, also known as Altstadt. Medieval and baroque buildings sit side by side in this historic district surrounding the River Salzach.
It also includes the Kaiviertel district, Festungsberg hill, the Hohensalzburg fortress and Mönchsberg mountains.
Being the birthplace of legendary composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, classical music and the Salzburg Festival is widely celebrated.
Streets and town squares, like Getreidegasse and Mozartplatz — named after its most famous native — are also notable points of interest.
The fortress was built in 1077 to protect the district and archbishops from outside attacks. You can reach the fortress on foot, but also by the fortress funicular, located in the Festungsgasse.
Inside are several museums, including the Marionette Museum and the Museum of the Rainer Regiment. Each highlights life during the time of the prince archbishops in Salzburg.
Also, inside the fortress are the princes’ chambers, consisting of all the original furnishings dating to the 16th century.
Hohensalzburg fortress is accessible to all, with an elevator providing access to many areas within the site.
Lines for the Hohensalzburg fortress build up quickly, so getting your tickets in advanced is advisable.
Add the historic center of Salzburg Old Town to the list
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — DomQuartier
The DomQuartier is another site to visit in this UNESCO heritage city. Within the complex are several notable buildings, namely the cathedral and the Benedictine St. Peter’s Abbey. There are also 5 different Salzburg museums in the DomQuartier, which you can enter with just a single ticket.
Highlights include state rooms of the Alte Residenz, the Residenz Gallery and the cathedral museum. A terrace above the cathedral arches provides far-reaching views of Salzburg’s baroque city center.
Boutique hotels in Salzburg
The Small Luxury Hotel Goldgasse
Stay in the heart of Salzburg Old Town at the rel=”sponsored”Small Luxury Hotel Goldgasse.
As its name suggests, the 14th-century building has luxury — yet affordable — accommodation in a central location. All rooms come with an en-suite bathroom with a shower or a bathtub.
Enjoy the finest local specialties at hotel restaurant, Gasthof Goldgasse. They only use local produce in all their dishes, each complemented by exceptional Austrian wines.
The Small Luxury Hotel Goldgasse is within easy walking distance of major sights in Salzburg. Be sure to stop by the cathedral, Mozart’s birthplace, the Getreidegasse, and the Salzach River.
Hotel Schloss Mönchstein
Receive a welcome drink, fruit basket and a homemade Guglhupf cake when you arrive at Hotel Schloss Mönchstein.
The 5-star luxury hotel sits atop a prime location in Salzburg, the Mönchsberg hill, providing panoramic city views.
Rooms and suites are all individually furnished, and feature priceless antiques and marble bathrooms.
Salzburg Old Town is just 7 minutes by car or on foot from the hotel. Catch a ride on the elevator built into the mountain to reach the old town. Guests staying at the hotel receive free elevator tickets.
Check out Hohensalzburg Fortress in the UNESCO world heritage site city of Salzburg
3. Historic center of Bruges
The largest city, and capital of West Flanders in the Flemish region of Belgium, is another UNESCO treasure.
Walking around Bruges gives you first-hand insight into what was a medieval historic settlement. Once a city contained within 4 walls, what remains are the gates, ramparts and one defense water tower.
The city’s retained its original streets, places and open spaces. Main roads lead towards the principle public squares, and the canals have also been preserved from medieval times.
Original Gothic buildings like the cathedral, the belfry and the churches dominate the city skyline.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Bruges
Markt is one of the top attractions to see in the Belgian city. The public square’s home to one of Bruges’ most important structures, the medieval bell tower, the Belfry. It was mainly used as a lookout for spotting fires and other dangers. Today, it’s an iconic landmark in Bruges.
If you like a challenge when you travel, try your hand at climbing the 366 steps to the top.
There’s a small fee to pay, but the views from 83m (272ft) should be worth the climb. A reward for your efforts awaits at the foot of the Belfry in the form of delicious Belgian fries. Fritterie dishes up hot, crispy frites, also known as frietkoten, and is a Bruges must-eat snack.
At the side and towards the back of the tower is the former market hall.
Statues of 2 local heroes that resisted French oppression stand proudly in the middle of Burg square.
Bruges natives Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck played significant roles during the Battle of the Golden Spurs.
Other notable sights include the Waterhalle and the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges. The old Court of Justice is a rare example of renaissance architecture in the city.
Rozenhoedkaai — best UNESCO world heritage sites
Bruges has plenty of Instagram-worthy spots, but one that tops them all is Rozenhoedkaai. Right by the canal and surrounded by traditional Belgian houses, it’s one of the most photographed spots in the city.
Take a boat ride, or simply admire the views and snap away. Whatever you decide to do, Rozenhoedkaai deserves a place on your Bruges itinerary.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — take a walk around Bruges Market Square
The Flemish primitives
During the 15th and 16th century, Bruges became closely associated to the school of Flemish Primitive painting. The period, also known as early Netherlandish painting, flourished in Belgium throughout this time.
You can admire the works of Flemish Masters like Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling on your Bruges trip. The Groeninge Museum and the Church of Our Lady are a handful of the places to see such masterpieces.
The brick spire of the Church of Our Lady reaches 122.3m, making it one of the tallest in the world. Inside is Michelangelo’s only sculpture to leave Italy during his lifetime: the exquisite white marble, Madonna and Child.
Boutique hotels in Bruges
Enjoy a luxury boutique guesthouse stay in Bruges at one of these 2 top choices.
There are just 3 stylish suites at this authentic townhouse in the center of Bruges. Classic, luxurious and romantic, this luxury guesthouse offers private facilities and a sitting area with your very own fireplace.
Brugsche Suites is located at one of the city gates, providing its guests with great views and easy transport links. A full breakfast is served each morning, including a variety of breads, cheese and ham, and fresh orange juice.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — B&B De Corenbloem
For adults only, B&B De Corenbloem is a 5-star luxury guesthouse in a historic townhouse in Bruges.
Rooms are furnished in period-style décor with wooden floors and high ceilings. The guesthouse is a place to completely switch off as rooms don’t have a TV.
B&B De Corenbloem is 550 yards from the Grote Markt, and a 10 minute-walk from the Groeninge Museum.
Sit down to breakfast in the dining room with an open fire, or in the orangerie with garden views.
Rozenhoedkaai in Bruges — hard to pronounce, but one of the best spots in this UNESCO city
The city and municipality of Toledo is home to more than 2,000 years of history. The central Spanish city is renowned for its medieval Arab, Christian and Jewish monuments within its city walls.
Its impressive monuments are a product of the different civilizations and 3 major religions of the city.
Toledo was first named a historic-artistic site in 1940, before later gaining its UNESCO status in 1986.
The ‘City of Three Cultures’ has a remarkable number of historic attractions within its vicinity. Several of these include the Castillo de San Servando, El Greco Museum and the Synagogue of El Transito.
While in Toledo, also make time to visit the many ‘puertas’, which were the entrances to the walled city. Puerta de Bisagra Nueva is the main entrance, while Puerta de Bab-al-Mardum is the oldest city gate of Toledo.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Castillo de San Servando
This medieval castle sits near the banks of the Tagus River. First occupied by monks, it was later given to the Knights Templar. Their job was to protect the Puente de Alcantara from a possible Muslim attack.
Fast forward to the present day and the castle, incredibly, is still standing. It was used as a site for a hostel, but that now seems to have closed.
El Greco Museum
After viewing the Castillo de San Servando, you’ll probably see it again, in some paintings at El Greco Museum.
The museum celebrates the life and work of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, also known as El Greco. Originally from Crete, El Greco spent a large portion of his life in Toledo.
It opened in 1911, showcasing a large collection of his paintings created during the Spanish Golden Age. The museum consists of 2 buildings: a 16th-century house with courtyard, and an extension dating to the early 20th century.
You can find El Greco Museum in the city’s Jewish Quarter. Inside, you’ll also find work by other 17th century Spanish painters, as well as furniture and pottery.
At the time of writing, ticket prices cost:
- €3 ($3.30 / £2.56) for general entry; and
- €1.50 ($1.65 / £1.29) for reduced tickets.
This also includes children. Admission is free for students, large families and retired persons.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Toledo in central Spain has over 2,000 years of history
Synagogue of El Transito — best UNESCO world heritage sites
Also, in the Jewish Quarter is the Synagogue of El Transito. Built in the 14th century, the religious temple is the most important example of Spanish-Jewish art.
Decorated with elements of the Mudéjar period and floral motifs, the synagogue has inscriptions in both Arabic and Hebrew. It’s also home to the Sephardic Museum.
Boutique hotels in Toledo
Entre Dos Aguas Hotel Boutique
Experience Toledo in a guesthouse formerly owned by a legendary Spanish guitarist, at Entre Dos Aguas Hotel Boutique.
Ideally located in the city center, this elegant boutique has several individually-styled rooms to welcome its guests.
El Greco Museum is 550 yards from the hotel, as is the 14th century city gate, Puerta del Sol Toledo.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Casa Palacio Rincón de la Catedral
Just a few steps from Toledo is the Casa Palacio Rincón de la Catedral. Offering 3 types of accommodation (Crisol de Culturas, Montes de Toledo, Templo), this well-placed boutique hotel is a Toledo favorite.
The hotel’s 200 yards from Toledo City Center and 450 yards from the Toledo Seminario. Other points of interest close to the hotel are El Greco Museum and Palacio arzobispal.
Learn more about Jewish culture and history at the Synagogue of El Transito in Toledo
5. Naples historic center
The southern Italian city of Naples is history lover’s dream. From the Greeks to the Romans, the Swabians to the Aragonese, there’s a whole lot of culture mixing going on
The largest historic center, and one of the most ancient cities in Europe, Naples gained its UNESCO title in 1995. Its architecture, reflecting the diverse styles and periods, helped to secure the title for the city.
While many of the Ancient Greek remains no longer exist, it’s still possible to see those from the Roman Age. Museums and archaeological sites, including the area of San Lorenzo Maggiore, exhibit relics from its Roman past.
Monuments of historic importance in Naples — Castello dell’Ovo
The city’s home to a number of remarkable monuments, including the Castello dell’Ovo, one of 7 castles in the area.
Built during the Swabian-Norman period, Castello dell’Ovo sits atop of what was a former Roman villa. You can find the castle on Megaride Island, overlooking the glorious Bay of Naples. Vesuvius volcano is also present, watching peacefully in the background.
Piazza del Plebiscito — best UNESCO world heritage sites
From the 15th to 17th centuries, Naples was governed by the Aragonese of Spain. They transformed the defense fortifications, built the royal palace, and also constructed Castel Nuovo.
The palace is one of the attractions you can see in the Piazza del Plebiscito, the public square in Naples. To the west is the grand Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, elements of which resemble the Pantheon in Rome.
The historic Castel dell’Ovo overlooking the Bay of Naples — best UNESCO world heritage sites
Santa Chiara, Naples
The complex of Santa Chiara includes the church of its namesake, a monastery and an archaeological museum.
Dating to the 14th century, the church underwent a restoration after partially being destroyed during WWII.
King Robert of Naples is buried in the church, his tomb placed behind the main altar. Also, within the complex is the Majolica cloister and the museum. Majolica tiles are tin-glazed pottery decorated in colors on a white background. Its stark contrast to the classic colors of the cloister makes it even more unique.
Boutique hotels in Naples
Artemisia Domus — best UNESCO world heritage sites
This gorgeous 4-star boutique property has 4 bright and elegant suites, which are also completely soundproof. Suites come with a hot tub with chromotherapy, and there’s also a shared lounge.
Artemisia Domus is 1,000 yards from Castel Nuovo (Maschio Angioino), while the royal palace is 0.8 miles. A continental breakfast is served each morning to start your day, and stomach, on a full note.
Hotel Matilde — Lifestyle Hotel
In the Plebiscito district of Naples is the ultra-chic Hotel Matilde — Lifestyle Hotel.
There are 18 rooms at this boutique hotel in Naples, complete with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and private bathrooms.
Hotel Matilde — Lifestyle Hotel is 100 yards from San Carlo Theatre and 550 yards from Maschio Angioino.
The royal palace and Piazza Plebiscito are also close to Hotel Matilde — Lifestyle Hotel. The hotel provides a paid airport shuttle service to Naples International airport, which is 5 miles from the property.
The colorful cloisters at Santa Chiara are a must-see in Naples
6. Historic center of Lima
The historical capital city of Peru was founded by Spanish conqueror, Francisco Pizarro, in January 1535.
Lima was once one of the most important cities of the Spanish dominions in South America. It was also the political, administrative, religious and economic capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
The city became a UNESCO member in 1988 for its high concentration of historic monuments built during Spanish rule.
Ciudad de los Reyes, or City of Kings, is located in the Rimac valley. The historic center’s home to around 20 attractions, including the mammoth Convent of San Francisco.
The largest of its type in South America, it houses a church, convent as well as 2 chapels. Beneath the complex lies an underground network of catacombs and galleries, which is also open to visitors.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor is the main square in the historic center, and plays an important role in the city. It’s where Francisco Pizarro founded Lima, and is also where the Act of Independence of Peru was proclaimed in 1821.
On top of this, Plaza Mayor is where you’ll find some of the most historic buildings in Lima. The Palace by Government, the Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Palace all surround the square.
Archbishop’s Palace, Lima
Home to the Archbishop of Lima, Archbishops Palace is a must-see on your city tour. The first major church began construction in 1535.
Its facade embraces baroque architectural style, while the ceiling is illuminated by famous French stained-glass windows. Pope Paul III turned the palace into an episcopal seat in 1541.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Plaza de Armas de Lima
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Torre Tagle Palace
Torre Tagle Palace is a classic example of Hispano-American baroque from buildings constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The mansion belonged to the fourth and last Marquess of Torre Tagle, Don Bernardine Jose of Tagle Portocarrero. It has a carved stone cover and 2 balconies, showcasing a mix of Limean architecture and the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Today, the palace’s the main headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peru.
Basílica Cathedral of Lima
In the same area is the magnificent Basílica Cathedral of Lima. Construction begun on the grand church in 1535 and finished in 1649. Its architecture style’s typical of those built during the Spanish colonial era, reminding me also of Merida Cathedral.
Inside, is a gold-plated altar featuring images of the colonial era, and 14 side chapels. The tomb of the city’s founder, Francisco Pizarro, is also based inside Basílica Cathedral of Lima.
When in Lima, make time to visit some of the lesser obvious historic monuments. The stone bridge over the Rimac river, and the Paseo de Aguas, are noteworthy sites to add to the itinerary.
Boutique hotels in Lima
Lima has an impressive number of boutique — and luxury — hotels that won’t break the bank.
Villa Barranco by Ananay Hotels
Check into this exquisite 1920s luxury townhouse in the Barranco district of Lima.
Villa Barranco by Ananay Hotels has 9 rooms available: 2 deluxe, 6 junior suites and 1 master suite. Views of the Malecon come with the deluxe rooms. For the junior and master suites, enjoy waking up to ocean and beach views.
A continental or buffet breakfast is served at its on-site restaurant, and they also offer guests free bikes.
Larcomar shopping center is 3.2km (2 miles) from the hotel, and the Museum of the Nation is 10km (6 miles) away.
The Lot Boutique — best UNESCO world heritage sites
In the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima is the chic and very intimate Lot Boutique. There are just 8 bedrooms in this converted townhouse, displaying a simple yet modern feel.
A healthy breakfast is served each morning, and the property also includes a terrace, shared lounge and a library.
Miraflores Central Park is 900 yards from Lot Boutique hotel. Miraflores is a good spot for coastal walks and also for trying out the local gastronomy.
A perfect example of architecture during Spanish colonial rule in Peru, Lima Cathedral
7. Historic center of Kraków
Kraków’s importance is highlighted by its perfect urban layout, and the number of monuments from various periods.
Wawel Castle is the most iconic feature in the historic center. The former royal residence sheds light on the dynastic and political ties of medieval and early modern Europe. It combines renaissance, gothic, romanesque, and early baroque architectural styles of the period.
Kraków historic center on the River Vistula consists of 3 parts. They include the medieval city of Kraków, the Wawel Hill complex, and the town of Kazimierz.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Grand Square (Rynek Glowny)
In the old town, you can find one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. Dating to 1257, Grand Square reflects the magnificent and precise medieval city planning.
At its center is Cloth Hall, a prime location for international trade in the 15th century. Today, it’s a place to browse, and maybe buy some, Polish crafts.
Like many market squares in Eastern Europe, it’s surrounded by quaint townhouses and historic churches.
Saint Mary’s Basilica, Kraków
The church of Saint Mary’s Basilica sits adjacent to the main market. It’s very hard to miss this imposing structure for 2 reasons. The first, is the trumpet signal that plays every hour from the top of the tallest of the 2 towers.
It commemorates a famous trumpeter who was killed while sounding the alarm before an impending Mongol attack on Kraków.
The second, is for its height and also for its architectural style. Saint Mary’s Basilica is 80m (262 ft) in height and was built in the 14th century. The church’s one of the finest examples of Polish Gothic architecture.
So significant is the church, that it was also awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1978, alongside the historic center.
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Grand Square in Kraków
Kazimierz — best UNESCO world heritage sites
In the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz are14th-century fortifications and ancient synagogues.
One of the oldest universities, the Jagiellonian University, is also located in the southern part of town.
Visiting Kraków Old Town is liked stepping into an open-air museum. Along with the historic buildings, it’s also home to more than 2 million works of art.
It’s one of many reasons why this Polish jewel deserves a spot on your bucket list.
Boutique hotels in Kraków
Best UNESCO world heritage sites — Metropolitan Boutique Hotel
Offering guests 59 rooms, including 26 Classic, 25 Superior and 8 Suites, Metropolitan Boutique Hotel is a superb Kraków choice.
Located next to the Kazimierz quarter of the city, rooms look onto a quiet cul-de-sac street or a picturesque courtyard.
This 4-star hotel also has a fitness center, and an on-site restaurant serving Polish and European cuisine.
It’s less than 0.6 miles from Kraków attractions like the Old Town and Wawel Royal Castle. On top of that, the hotel can also provide an airport shuttle service.
Amber Design Residence
I love everything about this aparthotel in Kraków. Set in a 1930’s building, Amber Design Residence is situated in a quiet street in the oldest part of Kraków.
It’s located next to Planty Park, which is known for its age-old trees, and is an idyllic place to walk, run or cycle. Choose from elegantly-styled rooms, suites or apartments. All come with a flat-screen TV as well as tea and coffee making facilities.
Relax in the stylish lobby with a coffee and admire the surrounding artwork.
The property’s close to St Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall, which are within 550 yards of the hotel.
Which of these UNESCO heritage cities would you most like to visit? Are there any others you’d like to see on the list? Give me a shout in the comments below!
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience; a demographic (late 20s onwards) that enjoys glamping over camping, staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels, sampling the local food and wine, cultural activities, and indulging in a spot of wellness on their travels. Read more here…